School of Hard Knocks: What business leaders can learn from London’s roughest schools

By Andro Donovan

Tension, nervousness and feelings of trepidation entering a classroom of disengaged, hardened and cynical teenagers for the first time was like walking into the dragon’s den. Preparing myself for the onslaught of verbal challenges and confrontational behavior was very stressful. Attempts to reach these kids never mind actually teach them seemed like an impossible dream.

I realised early on that if I was to gain respect and any form of interaction with this unruly bunch I would have to come up with something pretty amazing. Whatever I did I knew I had to cut through years of cynicism that they had built up about they system, teachers and their place in it. These teenagers were suffering from a low sense of self-esteem, accompanied by a ton of negative self talk – ‘I am thick, I am not good enough, nobody really cares about me, I don’t matter’.

The system had failed them and now they wanted  just to survive their day, get through and were basically killing time before the bell went when they could escape into their free time. There are some interesting similarities to be drawn here between tough teenagers and a cynical disengaged workforce.

Some of my most valuable experiences came from these early years of teaching, and the same lessons can be applied to the corporate world. Here are my five top tips for creating engagement in the workplace and capturing hearts and minds.

Talk about the elephant in the room

Instead of ignoring the cynicism, challenge it directly, let people know you empathise with their thinking. Explain that, in the absence of real delivery, people make up stories in their heads about what is really going on. Address the negativity head on and set up forums where people can speak their mind and air their views. Eventually if they feel they are being heard the negatives will subside and make way for the more positive thinking and new ideas. Ignoring or not listening to the criticism only makes it louder.

Enroll them into the game you want them to play

Articulate to your team what you are expecting and what you are aiming for. This sets the tone for full involvement, participation and teamwork. Let people know what the company’s aim is, not just in figures but also in terms of the experience you want them to have. Let them know how their part in the endeavour is important and valued. Describe how they are going to feel good about themselves when it’s achieved.

Give them an inspiring brief

The quality of the brief dictates the outcome. It’s important to enroll people rather than command. If you demand people will disengage from their creativity and become resentful. Tell your team you care about them, not just their performance. The key to getting great results is being a good mentor. One word of encouragement, praise or validation can go a long way to boosting morale, willingness and loyalty.

Take interest in people in your team

Take an interest in people, make a point of learning their names and familiarize yourself with their lives and interests outside the workplace. Make a point of having real conversations about their future or dreams. Find a way to connect so that they can relate to you as a human being, not as a role or title.

Let people make mistakes

If we never made a mistake we would never learn. Taking risks, putting forward new ideas and taking responsibility to implement them takes courage. Be prepared to have people make mistakes. If you are too punitive people will never leave their comfort zone.

Appreciate people’s efforts by actively praising them

Noticing and acknowledging positive behavior breeds more of it – you get what you focus on. Once you’ve earned some trust and respect you can begin to expect higher standards. People thrive on being given opportunities to shine and be challenged. Once you show people a glimpse of who they could be, they become passionate about proving you right.

Andro Donovan, pictured above, is author of Motivate Yourself